Solutions for homeless people who are mentally ill?

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDFebruary 20, 2013 

A reader asks:

I once a saw a statistic stating that approximately 1/3 of the homeless people in our country have mental health problems. As a consequence, many cannot hold jobs to provide housing for themselves. Besides privately run places, where do people in these circumstances go? Are there government housing solutions or other more permanent facilities for them besides shelters?

Greg Winter, director at Whatcom Homeless Service Center at Opportunity Council, responds:

Locally, approximately 30 percent of homeless persons have a self-reported mental illness. Mental illness is a large and complex category of illness that affect many people who are not homeless as well. Having a mental illness does not usually preclude people from leading very productive lives and obtaining employment. However, as the reader implies, sometimes a mental illness is so severe and/or the person is not receiving adequate care, and this results in a very serious barrier to stable housing. Fortunately, our community has an increasing variety of housing options for people with a disabling mental illness. For example, the Housing Authority, in partnership with other local nonprofit organizations operates a program called Shelter Plus Care that provides long-term housing assistance that is matched with clinical and other support services to help formerly homeless individuals and families obtain and retain housing. Opportunity Council, Catholic Community Services, Lydia Place, Northwest Youth Services, Womencare Shelter, Pioneer Human Services, Lake Whatcom Treatment Center, Whatcom Counseling and Psychiatric Clinic, and Whatcom County Health Department (and others!) are all working together to increase and improve long-term housing stability for people with mental illness who experience homelessness. Most of the housing used for these partnerships is private housing scattered throughout Whatcom County. There are also "project-based" housing facilities for special needs populations that we refer to as "permanent supportive housing." Emergency shelters such as Lighthouse Mission, Sun Community, and Womencare Shelter also provide supportive interim housing opportunities that include intensive supportive services and even primary medical care services in the case of Lighthouse Mission in partnership with SeaMar Community Health Clinic. As a collaborative community of service providers, we've come a long way in the last few years toward meeting more of the needs of people with mental illness who experience homelessness. We're not nearly meeting all the needs that exist, but working together, we continue to learn how to implement cost-effective ways to provide recovery-oriented, long-term housing solutions. Thanks for asking.

Ashley Thomasson, housing case manager at Lydia Place, responds:

There are a few options for my clients that fall into this category. Aside from waiting for a rare chance to come to the top of the Section 8 list or other Housing Authority list, there is a program offered through the Bellingham Housing Authority called Shelter Plus Care. It provides a tenant-based voucher (such as Section 8) to someone who is both homeless and has mental illness. It also connects them to a housing case manager and requires ongoing participation with a counselor/therapist/psychiatrist. Although a wonderful program, there are only a fraction of enough vouchers to serve the need in the community.

Another option is through the Whatcom Homeless Service Center program (clients can apply through the Opportunity Council). That program provides case management as well as deposits and a short-term subsidy. Although the financial help is not forever, it can help get these clients off the street and into permanent housing and case management can continue once financial services end. Once in housing, many of our clients are able to begin to properly address their mental health in a way they could not while living on the street. We often see clients that are ready for part-time, sometimes even full-time job opportunities by the time their subsidy ends. Being able to have that stability and time to adjust in housing first is crucial, however. For clients that are on a fixed income that cannot pay for a full-market rent and/or may take longer to return to work, we are sometimes able to offer longer, deeper subsidies. Recently, with the awareness surrounding the issue, more grant and funding opportunities have been given to this program with specific intent to provide longer subsidies for clients with mental illness.

These are the two main housing opportunities at this time for homeless families/individuals with mental illness. Although they are wonderful programs with excellent results, at this very moment we still do not have enough resources to serve the entire need of this population. Many of you have likely read or heard about the Catholic Housing Services project being built on Cornwall this upcoming year where 22 units will be set aside for homeless with mental illness. Unfortunately, due to stigma and lack of understanding surrounding issues of homelessness and mental illness, there has been a gross backlash from many in the community. I am thankful for this reader’s concern on the issue and urge the rest of the community to continue to learn and grow along with myself and this reader. One thing that after 5 years in my role I have come to truly understand is how incredibly accessing quick, stable housing can speed up my client’s success. At this time, although we have housing/funding options for these clients, we do not have any true “housing-first” units ready for them to move into. It can sometimes take weeks or months to find a landlord willing to rent to our clients or for a Shelter Plus Care Voucher to go through. Having this housing being made available is an incredible opportunity for our housing community and one that is needed deeply. The opening of this housing project will help us not only get closer to our dream of ending homelessness in our community, but provide much needed ongoing support and resources to our homeless with mental illness. I am confident that after a short time the downtown community will see the benefits of this project and have many more residents giving back to its neighborhood.

Share your expertise: If you have expertise to offer on this issue, please email your comments, along with your full name, city of residence and professional or educational credentials, to Julie.Shirley@bellinghamherald.com.

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